Canal Becomes Subway

I wrote about Abandoned Canals in Canada several months ago. That prompted 12MC reader Bill Harris to comment on an unusual re-purposing of an abandoned canal across the border in the United States. He noted that a portion of the Erie Canal that originally flowed through downtown Rochester, NY (part of my ancestors’ journey) was abandoned due to rerouting. It was subsequently drained, covered, and transformed into a tunnel for a light rail system. I thought it was a great comment, I conducted additional research and… somehow I forgot about it. Recently I came across my original notes so I’m posting what I intended to write last September.

Rochester, New York

Bridge Tunnel
Flickr by Patrick Haney via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The Rochester Subway website provided a summary:

The Erie Canal, responsible for much of upstate New York’s economic growth, was considered an obsolete eyesore by the turn of the century. The state legislature allocated money for relocation of the canal, and the last boat traveled through the city locks in 1919. After much debate about what to do with the abandoned canal bed, the city of Rochester then purchased the land for construction of a trolley subway that would greatly reduce the amount of surface traffic in the populous city. Eight years after the last canal boat was piloted through the city, the Rochester Industrial & Rapid Transit Railway was opened to the public in December 1927.

The covered-over canal became a subway tunnel and the surface above it became Broad Street (map). The subway wasn’t very successful although it somehow managed to sputter along until the mid 1950’s. The portion of Interstate 490 east of Rochester’s Inner Loop replaced much of the former canal and subway

Sections of tunnel still exist inside the city’s central core although largely hidden from sight. It pokes into view very briefly at the Broad Street Bridge which was designed originally as the Second Genesee Aqueduct of the Erie Canal, carrying the canal across the Genesee River. From street-level it seems to be just another roadway (Street View). From the side one can clearly observe the lower level where water once flowed and street cars later crossed (Street View).

Amateur spelunkers sometimes sneak through the abandoned Rochester Subway for urban exploration. The photograph above was taken by one such explorer inside of the Broad Street Bridge tunnel.

Cincinnati, Ohio

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Was it common to cover abandoned canals and convert them into subway tunnels? I quickly uncovered two more examples that were mentioned frequently on the Intertubes. Cincinnati was one of those two although critics could easily split hairs and claim it didn’t count. The system was never completed and trains never ran through the intended tunnel.

The city planned to follow the route of the Miami and Erie Canal which had been constructed in 1825. The canal served a useful purpose for a time, connecting the Great Lakes to the Ohio River (and thus the Mississippi River watershed). However it suffered a fate similar to many other canals competing with railroads. It went into decline and eventually failed as a commercial enterprise.

Numerous proposals were floated at the turn of the last century. The Cincinnati Enquirer summarized the situation in Subway legend has never left the station:

Construction started in 1920. Work stopped in 1927. The money had run out. Crews of men, mules and horses had completed 10 of the 16 miles in the system’s loop – including two miles of tunnels – running under downtown and Central Parkway and above ground along what would become the routes of interstates 75 and 71 and the Norwood Lateral.

Tunnels and stations are still down there below the city streets in a remarkable state of preservation including the Race Street Station at Central Parkway & Race St., which would have been the main hub. The Cincinnati Museum offers occasional tours as part of its heritage programs for those who are curious to observe the mysterious tunnels of a stillborn subway firsthand.

Newark, New Jersey

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Newark, New Jersey probably wins a prize because its a subway that still operates along the original route of an abandoned canal. The stretch from the Military Park Station to Branch Brook Park Station at Heller Parkway (route map) converted the pathway of the Morris Canal to a new mode of transportation when the subway opened in 1935. The entrance to the Military Park Station is displayed in the Street View image, above.

The Morris Canal ran across northern New Jersey for about a century, beginning with its construction in the 1820’s. It was probably noted most for its innovative use of 23 inclined planes in addition to traditional locks in order to move coal barges over a series of hills. I’ve talked about the inclined plane technique previously although not in the context of the Morris Canal. It was pretty impressive.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Newark Light Rail is the only place where one can visit a canal that’s been converted into a subway without any hassles, other than purchasing a ticket to ride the train. As always, I hope the 12MC audience can prove me wrong.

Honorable Mentions

There were a few notable places which did not fit the strict definition of a canal converted to a subway. They deserved to be mentioned for other reasons.

(1) Manhattan made Internet searches difficult because of Canal Street running across the lower tip of the island and accompanying stations on the New York City subway system. Canal Street Stations serve a whole spaghetti tangle of different lines. The canal referenced by Canal Street was essentially a drainage ditch that emptied the Collect Pond, which had become a cesspool by the early 19th Century. Canal Street followed the route of the old canal after the fetid pond was eventually filled-in. The old canal did not become a subway tunnel although it still hid an interesting history.

(2) The Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal forced a railroad to tunnel through a mountainside at Point of Rocks, Maryland. The canal held the right-of-way next to the Potomac River, as recounted by the C&O Canal Bicycle Guide; "After the canal failed, the railroad built a second track in the abandoned canal bed." The second track, however, wasn’t converted into a tunnel although the two tracks looked fascinating in Street View.

(3) The Third Welland Canal in Ontario, part of a system connecting Lakes Ontario and Erie to bypassing Niagara Falls, included a train tunnel that went under a canal. As noted by Wikipedia, "The Grand Trunk Railway Tunnel, also known as the ‘Blue Ghost Tunnel’, is an abandoned railway tunnel located in the community of Thorold, Ontario, which runs under lock 18 of the former third Welland Canal (1887-1932)." (map). Again, an interesting feature, although not exactly what I was hoping to find.

And a belated Thank You to Bill Harris!

One Reply to “Canal Becomes Subway”

  1. Until about ten years ago the Newark City Subway used cars that had been built in the late 1940’s but seemed much older. Riding on the system somehow felt like being on a historical exhibit as much as on a modern transit system. The current rolling stock may be more efficient and reliable, but it just doesn’t have its predecessor’s character. San Francisco’s MUNI streetcar system bought some of the old cars and continues to operate them.

    Strange trivia: the Newark City Subway originally had a short spur line not far from the Penn Station terminal for the exclusive use of two department stores, Kresge’s and McCrory’s. Each store had its own station platform that was accessible only through the store. Rail service ended in 1938, about a decade after the Subway opened, but service to these station platforms continued until the mid-1960’s using buses. The spur line and the station platforms have been sealed up ever since, the stores themselves are long gone, but an inspection tour ten years ago found that the platforms are still recognizable.

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